Community Matters | Wendy Penner: An investment beneficial to the health of our community

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NORTH ADAMS — Since 2001, the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, a member agency of Northern Berkshire United Way, has been working to reduce the use of alcohol and other substances by youth across north Berkshire.

The community-based substance use-prevention efforts funded by the state and federal government, as well as local sources, continue to be funded year after year because prevention works.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, abuse of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs is costly to our nation, exacting more than $740 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care, with each dollar invested in prevention yielding, conservatively, a savings of $8. These numbers can't possibly measure the human toll of devastated families and lost or irrevocably altered lives.

The coalition's work is grounded in a community-based approach. In short, our communities have a moral obligation to keep children and youth out of harm's way.

We know alcohol, marijuana, nicotine and other drugs can be harmful to the developing adolescent brain, therefore, we have a shared responsibility to prevent and reduce substance use among youth.

Each year a young person delays alcohol and other drug use is beneficial to their overall risk outlook, and their risk of developing a substance-use disorder decreases. In addition, when young people learn how to have fun or to deal with stress and anxiety without using alcohol or drugs, they develop resilience and self-management skills that will benefit them across their lifetime.

In 2015, our youth substance-use prevention work group developed a strategic plan grounded in an assessment of what substances youth in north Berkshire are using, how they are obtaining them, and the risk and protective factors that can impact youth decision-making.

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This assessment process included information from student health surveys, focus groups with youth and parents, key stakeholder interviews, as well as epidemiological data. One key finding was that by eighth grade, local youth use of alcohol and marijuana was trending about twice the national average. "Prevention" efforts need to target youth before this time. In fact in 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with guidance that parents should talk to their children about alcohol use by age 9.

While many parents might feel this is too early, research shows that by age 9 youth begin to form ideas about alcohol use as attractive. In addition, youth in our region generally have a very low perception of the harmfulness of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco use, and they tend to believe that adults in the community do not view alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco use as a serious concern.

Our prevention work aims to implement evidence-based strategies shown to reduce youth use by creating an environment that supports healthy decision-making by youth. This work includes partnering with the local pediatric practices to provide substance-use prevention information to parents at visits beginning at age 9.

We have also launched a media campaign directed at encouraging parents to talk to their children about alcohol and marijuana, citing specific supports for the skills needed to have that conversation. The message to kids should not be "Just say no," but a loving and supportive expression of concern for their well-being combined with facts and information about the impact of substance use on their developing brain. Parents are directed to the nbCC website, which has a list of resources, as well as information regarding specific substances typically used by youth.

We have also been working with schools across the region to implement an evidence-based curriculum called Lifeskills. This effort has had great support from the education department of the Berkshire District Attorney's Office. We also work with Northern Berkshire Youth Collaborative to identify professional development opportunities for youth workers so that they feel empowered to talk with young people about healthy decision-making and support youth who may be struggling.

Our efforts to directly engage parents in prevention education have been challenging. Parents are busy people who are pulled in many directions and may not have time to attend a class about supporting healthy decision-making. To make information more accessible, we are turning our attention to social media posts, newsletters and podcasts.

Prevention can be challenging! Many people feel experimentation by youth is a normal rite of passage. So, creating a sense of buy-in and investment in prevention needs to fight that sentiment with accurate and empowering information about supporting the overall health and wellness of our youth.

Wendy Penner is the director of prevention and wellness at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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